Friday, January 01, 2010

Ah, so THIS is the writing life!

Decade revisited

In the spirit of it all, having only just realised that this is a new decade as well as a new year (bit slow, me), I thought about 1999. That was the year I wrote the first short story that was ever published, during my first visit to the sublime Anam Cara writing retreat which I have since revisited several times and where magic always always happens. Anyhow, I may really regret this, but that first story, Doing it in Eden, is still available online, in The Beat's second issue. Ok, yes, you can read it. Hmmm. Perhaps you shouldn't comment. No. Don't!

So, a momentous ten years, one that saw me starting to take writing seriously, attending two Arvon Courses, at the first of which I met J, my partner, and at the second was instructed by my writing idol Ali Smith to drop everything and write full time. An MA in creative writing, several workshops in the US, various publications and some lovely prizes, and then... my first book was born. What a decade!

Finally, I get it

After all that, it is fairly embarassing to admit this. But in the spirit of honesty I shall do it: only this week have I felt that I am really living The Writing Life. A few months ago I was asked to write about my daily writing routine for Branta and, perhaps stupidly, I wrote candidly about all the ridiculous things I do every day online. As someone commented somewhere, I should have been too ashamed to admit it all. Yes, I should have been. it wasn't so much a writing routine as Wordscraper tournaments and Amazon ranking checks with some writing slipping in there purely by chance every now and then.

Now, thanks in great part to the Twyla Tharp book, The Creative Habit, which I blogged about here,  as well as being castigated  by several far more efficient writers (thanks Adam M and David G!), I have made a radical change to my life, implementing it before Jan 1st to get a good start. And a good start it has been. I finally feel like a Writer. Let me elaborate:
  • Simplify
The first thing I did was decide not to switch my mobile phone until 2pm or the Internet on til after 5pm . So, when I wake up, I don't run to check anything, don't feel like anyone can demand anything from me, that I have to reply to anything. No-one can need me to do anything. And I am not constantly multi-tasking and doing lots of things half-heartedly.

Tip: if you can get through the first hour after waking up without checking your email, it gets easier, believe me. I was really tired the other day (see later for why) and felt weak, felt like I needed email. But I fought it. Didn't give in. And the craving vanished.
  • Feed the imagination
I have, over the last ten years, been both silly and, frankly, arrogant. I have never - I repeat this to shame myself further - never carried around a notebook and pen and taken notes. I never wrote done the great first lines that came into my head, never sat and watched people, recording observations, overheard snippets. I assume that if something was good enough, I would remember it. Well: You don't. It's GONE. Gone. I wonder now how much I have lost. Stories I've written in my head at night in bed and in the morning they've disappeared.

So, first thing in the morning, after breakfast, I go out and, following Twyla Tharp's example of what a writer she knows does,  I determine to come back with something. I take a notebook and pen, phone (for emergencies, switched off).

The first day I went for a wander around the neighborhood streets and while this was physically invigorating (damn cold) it didn't give me anything to take back. So on Day Two I headed the other way, to the shops, and went and sat in a cafe I'd never been in before. Because I didn't have my mobile on, I didn't sit there and check email obsessively every few mins. And I didn't look around for something to read or entertain me.

I just watched.

And I discovered how much I never normally see. The place was very busy, I watched everyone, and I wrote things down. And as I did this, I felt myself seeing in a whole new way, looking out for things no-one would see unless they paid careful attention. And, writing it down made me feel like a working writer. I was working. I sat for an hour and that day I definitely came back with something:  a character. She then provided the inspiration for not one but two stories, or beginnings of stories.
  • Don't write yet
So, this is an interesting one, will see how this works, but when I get back from my walk, I go and spend several hours doing other work - with the Internet still off. This week it was finishing the gargantuan Arts Council grant application form, and working on a freelance project for the university's science faculty. And do you know what? Without email and Facebook I not only was more productive, I felt calmer.And all the while the stuff I had fed my imagination with earlier was whirling and percolating in the back of my mind.

  • Make an appointment / Write at night
This is something I have been dying to try for a long, long time. A lot of well-known writers work at night, and I am a night-bird anyway, but normally we are watching telly or something. Not this week. This week, I had two hours or so of Internet time, 6-8, then spent time with J, dinner etc...But I had made an appointment with myself, so at 10pm each night I headed back to my study, the Internet off again, and stayed there til 2am, only writing and doing writing-related things.

Are you surprised to hear that I got a lot done? I wasn't sure what would happen. At first, I thought I might fall asleep. But I didn't. I love nighttime, the darkness, the different kinds of noises (city foxes squealing in our garden). I wrote several stories, the beginnings of stories, transcribed things I'd written, and in one hour on Wed night adapted another of my stories into a play.

I tried to simulate the conditions in which stories come into my head as I am dropping off to sleep by lying on some cushions on the floor and letting myself drift a bit. Hmm, sort of worked. Not great. Let's just say it might take some time. 

For me, as a short story writer, it makes so much sense to write at the end  of the day, when stuff has happened, when you have material, rather than first thing, when I am not very awake, when it's all a bit of a fuzzy blank. A novelist has what to work on, what to return to, so that's different, perhaps you need that clarity, that lack of stuff, in order to get back into it. But for me, this seems to work.
  • Don't beat yourself up
My final point: I am not going to make myself crazy if one night I don't write much, I don't get much "done". As another well-known writer said, the main thing is to just turn up. And I turned up.

Not smooth sailing yet

Suffice it to say, the new routine has created some sleep problems for both of us, since I am creeping into bed at around 2.30am, and waking up at 11ish. We haven't got that one sorted yet. The other night I couldn't sleep til 4.30am. And, of course, I can't schedule anything for myself before 12 every day. Ok, that might be workable. I don't see why my writer-in-residence position at the Uni's Science Faculty should be morning-based? I bet a lot of the Faculty keep odd hours. Frankly - and I know I am not alone in this - this society is far too morning-based. New Scientist reported a while ago that, given the choice, the majority of us would go to be at around 1am and wake up at 9am. (Of course, if you have kids this is pretty impossible, I know. Sorry!)

So, there you have it. My first week truly feeling like a Working Writer. It is a relief to have got here. Because I didn't have a Creative Habit, because I didn't have a way of working, I was coming up with a load of bizarre scenarios - getting a job in a flower shop, for example - that might serve to force me to write. But now it all feels right, at last. I have a routine, I have time slots for different things, I have ritual activities to do, I have a way of generating inspiration.

It's all new and I know it will take time, will evolve. I am really excited to see how it goes, to incorporate days in the Nanoscience and Quantum Information Centre into my routine. I will write more as it happens - and wish you all a wonderful year in which you are able to do what you most want to do, calmly and without too much frustration, guilt and angst. Happy New Year!


Jo said...

Your candour is refreshing! How many writers admit to not writing? I was so inspired by this post, thank you!

Carolyn Jess-Cooke said...

I could not agree more with this, particularly the 'if you don't write it down, you forget it' tip - I'm now far too paranoid NOT to carry a notebook around with me (in fact, notebooks are everywhere in our house, just in case...) Is wonderful to reflect. I so admire you for writing full time.... Someday....


sonia said...

Thanks for this post- it was so honest and really helpful.

Elisabeth said...

It's wonderful to read about your life as a writer. For a week there before Christmas I spent my time as a writer at the writer's house in the Blue Mountains in NSW and realised that I probably prefer to struggle with the tensions between writing and other activities.

Years ago I was heartened when MJ Hyland told me that at that stage of her life, while she was working full time as a lawyer, she spent every Sunday afternoon writing. That's all.

I say I felt heartened by this because I too work full time and working full time means that I must do my writing in the nooks and crannies of the day. I still consider myself a writer for all that.

I think the practical business of writing is different for everyone. What's comfortable for one person is ghastly for another.

I often wish I had more time to write, though I also wonder, if I did have that time, what other activities might I put in place that would leave me with about the same amount of writing time I have now.

My apologies for this long comment. It's late at night and I'm taking a leaf out of your book.

Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating, and incredibly generous, as always. I agree with so much of this and have found much to be the same in my own writing life. I will add, though, that the schedule does seem to change from one year to the next as circumstances change -- at least that has been true for me. The trick then is not to fight it, but to go with it. Maybe, as the yogis say, it's the intention that really matters. xoxo

Jo Simmonds said...

This is an extremely good article - better than those in 'Writer's and Artist's' for truly honest gritty advice.

I attended a course at Ty Newydd this year after becoming unemployed and, whilst I found it difficult at the time, I have found the lasting feeling to one of immense encouragement and support.

I recently won the Arvon competition which has further inspired me as it came from a writing exercise to write for ten minutes a day.

I still haven't fallen into that pattern (to write whatever for 5-10 mins) but am considering writing a private computer diary so I truly feel free to write about absolutely anything, not just fiction...

I also think physical exercise is more linked to mental exercise than we think and I also feel refreshed after a walk...

Please keep writing honest articles - they really are refreshing to read from a published author even though you feel that sometimes puts you at risk :)

Tania Hershman said...

Jo - glad you like the post. I always find it funny when people thank me for being honest! Why shouldn't we be honest? Mostly, this blog is for me, this blog post is for me to formulate my thoughts, set down what I want and what I am doing and how it's working - so if I am not honest here it's mostly myself I am fooling!

Carolyn, hmm, notebooks around the house, there's an idea. Do you really have one in each room and grab them when something comes? Excellent! And re writing full time, it isn't very easy and I know it's not for everyone. We all have to find the way we work best, eh?

Sonia, I am so glad, thank you for commenting, that means a lot to me.

Elisabeth, nice to meet another night-owl! I really like what you say, "struggle with the tensions between writing and other activities", because that sounds to me like a friction that can be very stimulating. I was a freelance journalist and that job, working with words in a different way and never being able to "leave" work, just wasn't compatible for me with writing fiction. But I can imagine that a job that is quite different and that can be "left" could be very compatible with writing.

Sue, you are, as ever, an inspiration to me. Yes, I have only been doing this for a week, I imagine it will change. Still planning to interview you about this!

Jo, I can't think of anything you could have said to make me happier! As I wrote above, this blog is mainly for me, if someone else finds it useful that is really gratifying for me. Glad to hear your course was good, and huge congratulations on winning the Arvong comp! The two Arvon courses I did were utterly life-changing, honestly. And yes, you are right about physical exercise, am going to go to my first ever Bikram yoga class on Monday, we will see if I survive - and how it helps my work! And thank you for you kind words, every time I do take the risk and talk candidly, the appreciation I get makes it well worth it. If it puts some people off my writing, that really doesn't worry me.

Rachel Fenton said...

I tried to leave a comment yesterday but the t'internet crashed! Here I am again. Sooooo refreshing to have a real insight into the vacuums as well as the productivity of being a full time writer. It's life, this stuff we commit to page, after all. You've got to live a little and whether the words flow in torrents or in streams, what's it matter?

You've been a fab help/support to me by being as you are!

Naz said...

Oh Tania, this is exactly what I need to read right now. I am going to print it out and give it to my writing students. I am going to grab The Creative Habit. I am going to make some coffee and switch off the Internet.

Tania Hershman said...

Rachel, sorry to hear about your crashing! And vacuums, ah yes. I try and be honest but I think if I really unveiled the full extent of my not writing, it would scare me too. I am so happy you've found my blogs helpful and supportive, that means everything!

Shahnaz, wow, I'd love to hear what your students think! This is just what I hope will work for me, but not sure it's a blueprint. Hope you enjoyed your coffee. The book is excellent!